Ask D.I.: What can you do with a degree in anthropology?

What can you do with a degree in anthropology?
What can you do with a degree in anthropology?

Graduation season is here. Good news, right? I might have expected my students to celebrate, to look at the fast-approaching end of their college career with excitement and relief. Instead, my students are just plain terrified.

This week, I received an email from a distressed student of mine who is graduating this year. An excerpt of the original email is below:

“I’m graduating in June and don’t know what I’m going to do after I leave school…what can you do with a degree in Anthropology? I feel like I’ve wasted four years on a useless piece of paper.”

My department does a solid job in training students how to be good anthropologists. However, we’re slightly less clear about what these students can do post-graduation with the skills that they’ve learned. No wonder my students are freaking out.

So what can you do with a degree in anthropology? In this post, I’ll unpack some of the options for new anthropology graduates.

          1) Go to grad school.

If you’re interested in research and further academic study (either in anthropology or another related field), this is the choice for you.

What can you do with a degree in anthropology?
Consider going to grad school.

When looking for a graduate program, try to find a school that 1) suits your research interests and 2) is a good cultural fit. Ranking websites like PhDs.org can help you get a general idea about what to look for in a high-quality program. You should then check out each program’s website and other online resources, like The Grad Café forums, in order to get a more particular idea about what each program is like.

For example: do you prefer a comprehensive approach to anthropology, or do you want a more focused approach? My program is well-known for its emphasis on four-field anthropology and interdisciplinary research. Other programs are much more specialized. Find the program that’s right for you.

For a lot of grad students, the ultimate goal is to become either a professor at a leading university or a paid researcher for an institute or think tank. However, teaching and research certainly aren’t your only choices. If you decide to pursue a PhD, you can consult online resources like VersatilePhD to identify other possible career options for postgrads.

          2) Go to professional school.

If you’re interested in continuing your schooling but would like to use your anthropology skills in more applied contexts, professional schools might be your best bet.

Are you interested in corporate America and entrepreneurship? Business school might be right for you. The GMAT assesses analytical writing and problem-solving abilities, not in-depth business knowledge, so MBA programs are fair game for anthropology undergrads without prior business experience. The same goes for admission to law school: no legal knowledge required.

Biological anthropologists can also consider applying to medical school. Contrary to popular belief, you don’t have to be a typical science major to get into medical school. According to Psychology Today:

While non-science majors generally make up less than 5% of the applicants to medical school, their admission percentage rate can be higher than traditional sciences—in some cases over 50%.

Admission to medical school requires you to take a basic set of fundamental science courses—e.g. biology, physics, and both organic and inorganic chemistry. However, these classes don’t have to be taken during your college career, so feel free to take any necessary prerequisites after graduation in order to be ready to apply.

          3) Get a job.

If you look for an entry-level job that includes “anthropologist” in the job title, you’ll probably come up empty. However, college graduates with an anthropology degree are often well-suited for careers popular with other social scientists.

Options to consider: marketing, public policy, social work, international development, market research, public relations…any careers that value critical thinking skills and an in-depth knowledge of human behavior would be a good fit.

Be ready to market your skills to companies who might not be familiar with the field of anthropology. To quote the American Anthropological Association:

When interviewing for a job, make sure you emphasize how your training in Anthropology applies to the position at hand…For example, if you want to work in foreign relations, emphasize how the international range of anthropological ethnography makes you well-prepared for cross-cultural partnerships.

It’s also possible to find entry-level positions that are more specific to anthropology, depending on your subfield. Archaeologists, for example, can often find jobs in cultural resource management. Biological anthropologists can look for careers in public health and ecology. Companies like Ancestry.com actively recruit sociocultural anthropology majors with an interest in family history and genealogy, and linguistic anthropologists would be well-suited for jobs as interpreters, translators, or transcriptionists.

            The final verdict?

So what can you do with a degree in anthropology? A lot of things, really.

However, knowing what your next steps should be requires you to know what you as an anthropologist can contribute to the world. Your written communication skills, your ability to collect and interpret data, your capacity for analytical thinking and problem-solving—all will serve you well as you leave college and begin the next chapter of your life.

What do you think? Do you have any advice for recent graduates?

Do you have your own question you’d like me to answer in a future post? Email me or leave me a message on Tumblr.

3 thoughts on “Ask D.I.: What can you do with a degree in anthropology?

  1. It’s been a long time since I graduated, so my personal advice probably wouldn’t be relevant. But, I did hear something that other day that caught my attention.

    Someone was saying to a recent grad, if you want do something awesome, just be prepared for your first couple jobs to suck.

    I thought that was awesome. Not that a first job has to necessarily suck. But that it very likely will, and that’s okay, and it’s part of the process.

  2. I’m not an anthropologist. I’m a research analyst supporting a number of anthropologists. It’s not academia, it’s government. I’ve seen a lot of anthropologists come and go in my time, what I can say to someone entering the fields is: Be prepared for fieldwork. You will sometimes go weeks or months with very little time to spend with family and friends. Then you will be under a great deal of pressure to write-up your findings from whatever funding agency you’ve gotten money from. It’s rewarding work though. There’s nothing like going to the AAA, or whatever conference, and presenting a paper on work you did. I don’t relish the thought of losing my position in this field. So, as tough as it can be when you get there, and you’re at the bottom of the totem pole, it’s going to get better and will be as interesting as you make it.

    1. Yes, this is true. Anthropology places a great deal of emphasis on fieldwork. (Fun fact: That’s why it takes longer to get a PhD in anthropology than it does in other, similar social sciences.) Indeed, doing fieldwork in foreign locations where you do not have a strong emotional support system can be a difficult and emotionally isolating experience. Most of my colleagues 1) communicate with friends and family members using Internet-based applications and 2) make new friends and acquaintances in the areas that they study, and therefore do not feel too lonely. However, others find foreign work psychologically trying, which is something to bear in mind when considering a career in anthropological research.

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